Jay McCreight at her home in Harpswell on Dec. 7, hours after the end of an eight-year tenure in the Maine House of Representatives. (J.W. Oliver photo)
After the maximum four consecutive elections and eight years in the Maine House of Representatives, Harpswell Democrat Joyce “Jay” McCreight’s last day in office was Dec. 7. As she finished a job she described as exciting and intense, grueling and rewarding, she was feeling a mix of sadness and satisfaction.
The former public school social worker was a relative newcomer to both Harpswell and politics when circumstances helped launch her first run in 2014. She campaigned hard and captured 53.3% of the vote to take the seat. No opponent would come within 15 percentage points for the next three elections.
McCreight rose to positions of influence in the Legislature, serving as House chair of both the Marine Resources Committee and the Opioid Task Force. An advocate for health care — especially mental health and reproductive rights — and the marine environment, she introduced bills on each subject and shepherded them into law.
Joyce Edwards grew up in the city of Rochester, New York, on Lake Ontario, attending public schools in Rochester. She was Jay to her family and later to classmates at Ohio’s College of Wooster, where she met her husband, Tim McCreight — pronounced McRight. They married in 1971 and she graduated with a sociology degree in 1973.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, college campuses were simmering with student protests against the Vietnam War. An hour from Wooster, Kent State University became the epicenter of the movement in 1970, when National Guardsmen killed four protesters.
McCreight had grown up in a Republican family, but had not engaged in politics before college. She experienced an awakening amid the protests, marching in Washington, D.C., during her freshman year.
McCreight said she connected to Democratic values, like “looking out for the most vulnerable.” But she never expected to become a lawmaker.
After Wooster, the McCreights lived in Vermont, then Massachusetts, before Tim McCreight took a job as a professor of metalsmithing at the Portland College of Art, now the Maine College of Art and Design, and the family moved to Cape Elizabeth.
Jay McCreight earned a master’s degree in clinical counseling from the University of Southern Maine in 1993. She worked for Head Start, an adoption agency, and the mental health provider Sweetser. For 20 years, she was a social worker with South Portland Public Schools.
McCreight balanced a caseload of up to 50 students. Her favorite part of the job was working with autistic children, in classes and one on one, to teach social skills. She also led groups that helped kids navigate grief and divorce.
For McCreight, social work “was all about advocacy.” So, too, was her work in the Legislature years later. “I think the advocacy is the link — advocacy not just for but with people,” she said.
In search of a more tranquil place to live, the McCreights found Harpswell. Jay McCreight was “mesmerized” by the beauty of the place during an early visit. They bought property on Great Island in 2001 and built their home in 2007-08.
A Harpswell neighbor, Helen Regan, encouraged McCreight to get involved with politics. During President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, McCreight ran a Grandmothers for Obama volunteer group that mailed postcards to Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.
One of her volunteers, Judy Kahrl, founded Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights, or GRR, and invited McCreight to the first meeting. When the organization took its cause to the State House, McCreight felt energized by the atmosphere and activism.
McCreight’s neighbor, Regan, was volunteering with Jeremy Saxton, a Harpswell Democrat who was challenging the Republican representative of Maine House District 51 — Harpswell, West Bath, and a slice of Brunswick. McCreight signed on as volunteer coordinator.
She immersed herself in the role, canvassing for Saxton, meeting fellow volunteers, attending events. Saxton won the 2012 election, while McCreight took on another background role as chair of the Harpswell Democratic Committee.
After one term, Saxton decided not to seek reelection.
“We started looking for a candidate and we weren’t getting any eager takers,” McCreight said. “And then I started having people say to me, ‘Why don’t you run?’ And I said what everybody says: ‘I’m better behind the scenes.'”
But the questions kept coming. “It makes you think, and it’s flattering, and you begin to think, ‘Could I?”” McCreight said.
She could — and she spent almost every day on the trail to win her first term. “It was so energizing to knock on doors, to meet people,” she said.
McCreight’s first bill addressed reproductive health care — and so would her last. The first expanded Medicaid coverage for reproductive health care and family planning, while the last allowed health care facilities to establish “safety zones” where protesters cannot block entrances or harass patients.
McCreight sees reproductive health care as an issue of bodily autonomy and the “right to personal choice.”
“It’s not for politicians to decide,” she said. “It’s between a person and their provider.”
She fought one of her “hardest battles” to pass a bill aimed at moving kids with behavioral health issues out of emergency rooms and into appropriate treatment.
Kids “were getting stuck for days, weeks, months, because there was no place to go,” she said, and the atmosphere can further traumatize vulnerable children.
Another McCreight bill required schools to treat absences for mental health the same as absences for physical health.
As a representative of a fishing community, McCreight served on the Marine Resources Committee for most of her eight years in the Legislature, including four years as House chair.
She was proud to work with fishermen on the concerns they brought to her — sponsoring a bill to set up a process for disposal of expired marine flares, which pose environmental and safety hazards; and a bill to allow an immediate family member of a lobsterman to fish with their license while the lobsterman has a serious illness or injury. She introduced the latter bill after hearing from a lobsterman with cancer who wanted his son to keep hauling his traps.
Another of her bills requires the state to map eelgrass, which provides habitat for baby lobsters, among other benefits.
McCreight, who lost her father and two other relatives to lung cancer, received recognition from both the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society for bills to equalize taxes on tobacco products and fund efforts to prevent tobacco use.
In 2017, McCreight was House chair of the Legislature’s Opioid Task Force, which issued numerous recommendations in the areas of prevention, treatment and law enforcement.
Maine continues to feel the ravages of the crisis, with a record 627 deaths from drug overdoses in 2021. “We need more treatment,” McCreight said. “We need to destigmatize.”
State Rep. Denise Tepler, D-Topsham, worked alongside McCreight throughout her tenure, terming out at the same time. “For eight years, Jay sat at one or the other of my elbows,” Tepler said. “She was just always right there for me.”
McCreight would lean on Tepler for advice on tax issues, while Tepler would turn to McCreight for insight on marine issues. Tepler described McCreight as calm, kind, patient and “very, very persistent” in pursuit of her legislative aims.
McCreight has mixed feelings about the end of her time in the Legislature.
“I’m really sad about it and I miss it, but it’s so intense,” she said. “I’ve never worked harder in my life, and I’ve always worked hard. It’s so exciting — and it’s so draining.”
Maine law restricts legislators to four consecutive terms. Many take a term off and run again, or switch back and forth between the House and Senate.
McCreight is unlikely to run again. “I can’t really say no, but I’m satisfied with what I accomplished and what I learned,” she said. “Being given the opportunity, the honor and privilege, of doing that, is quite something. It’s kind of indescribable.”
McCreight will continue to serve the community as a member of the Harpswell Aging at Home Steering Committee, the Harpswell Resiliency and Sustainability Committee, and the Midcoast Council of Governments Board of Directors. She also belongs to an informal group of Harpswell residents working on youth mental health first aid.
In life after the Legislature, she looks forward to travel and more time with friends. An avid reader, she belongs to a book group at the Orr’s Island Library. She also enjoys sewing.
She lives on Gun Point, overlooking Ice Pond, with her husband, an author and well-known metalsmith. They have two adult children and four grandchildren, plus a surrogate family of sorts.
The McCreights hosted asylum-seekers from the Republic of Congo at a house in Brunswick that served as the headquarters for Tim McCreight’s business. A two-month stay turned into 18 months, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and because there was no place for the family to go.
The family has a new home in Brunswick now, but didn’t forget their hosts. They just had their fourth child, a girl. They named her Joyce, and they call her Jay.